I’m writing this on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Just a week before the UK voted to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay. A majority in England and Wales wanted to go.
Division, spite and rancour is in the air.
Yet, for all sides, the First World casts a long across Britain. It helped make the country we live in. Never such innocence, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote, as when we marched to war in 1914. Never such shattered innocence as the first day of the Battle of the Somme. If there was a day when modern Britain was born it was this.
I’m writing this to capture the #wearehere project. At key railway stations across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland volunteers dressed in First World War battledress appeared. Talk to them and they quietly give you a card with the name of a soldier who was killed on this day a hundred years ago.
As a child, a teacher taught us how much the First World War had changed Britain not with numbers. He pulled three empty chairs to the front of the classroom.
“Those chairs,” he said, “are empty. But they would have had three children just like you sat on them. But they weren’t born because their grandfathers were killed in the First World War.”
I seem to spend a lot of time telling people in training that the key to good communication is to be human. It’s why #wearehere works. It’s a real thing with real people. And the real people who saw it and were moved shared images and thoughts online.
I don’t know who is behind the project, but thank you for a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the 704,803 who died like cattle to show us that modern war was something to avoid.
But thank you too for a reminder that we are all human.
As I watched a tear run down my grandpa’s face I realised the First World War hadn’t ended.
This proud man with clipped military moustache and silver hair sat in a chair across from front of me.
This was 20 years ago. I was a teenager and had been ushered in slightly reluctantly to talk to him on one of his visits.
We chatted awkwardly for a while. I’m not sure how it came up but he started to recall what happened in 1916 when his father died 70 years before.
There was just me and him in the room, a ticking clock and rain on the windows.
He cleared his throat and paused. He straightened his tie and he looked above me at the clock on the mantlepiece as he composed what he was going to tell me.
He was three, he told me, when his father left him. A Liverpool docker his dad was called up to become Sapper Peter Molyneux in the Royal Engineers.
Like his brothers he was six foot, the life and soul of the party his bulk towering over others.
His dad was sent to Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, to help protect oil supplies.
History tells that the British expected easy victory but were cursed in this inglorious backwater by disease.
A last letter home scribbled in pencil was cheerful but his weakened handwriting gave the truth away. Sapper Molyneux died of dysentry three days later on May 22 1916.
“But that was war,” my grandpa said. “That was what happened.”
Looking back, I can remember every tick of the clock and inflection in his voice as he told me the story. As he finished a tear came to his eye and he reached into his pocket for the pressed handkerchief he always carried. He wiped it away. And I sat unsure what to say. So I said nothing. The conversation unfinished and I knew with crystal certainty it would never take place again.
Months later on Remembrance Sunday alone with a radio and the Last Post his tear came to me unexpectedly and I buried my head and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
But my Grandpa, protective of his mother, didn’t tell me what happened next. This emerged at a family funeral years later.
My grandfather’s mother could not cope. Shattered by grief and care worn by feeding five children she married again too soon to a man too fond of drink.
One thing isn’t clear. Did he persuade her to leave her children behind? Or did she die of pernicious anemia the product of a poor diet? We’re not sure. What is sure is that for three months the remaining children kept up the pretence of family life rooting for food in bins until their shame was exposed.
This was pain on top of pain on top of pain on top of pain.
I try hard not to, but even as a man with two children all I can see is life’s hard unseen hand slapping the small boy that grew-up to be my grandpa. A boy who looks strikingly like my own son.
Without a state to intervene the Molyneaux children were distributed to kind relatives.
As time went on, the boy grew up, married and was called up himself and sent in his father’s footsteps to Mesopotamia. This time it was World War Two.
On a lull in his duties in the desert near Basra he searched without success for his father’s grave.
That he could not find that grave was a sadness I felt.
Years later and long after my grandpa’s death I took up the search online. It took five minutes on the Commonwealth War Graves site.
It was as easy as googling and it felt wrong he was not there to see it.
Sapper Peter Molyneux is buried at grave XXI row F20 in the Kut-al-Amara graveyard near Basra along with 4,620 others.
When he died, my grandpa left me a wooden desk with a secret draw. In it I found a creased envelope and things from the Second World War.
Inside the envelope was a handful of sand.
I like to think of my grandfather in the Second World War stopping and picking up that handful of sand in Mesopotamia and carefully storing it when his search for his dad’s grave failed.
It’s a conversation and a story unfinished. It feels unresolved and I’m just not sure how to resolve it.
It’s what I think of on Remembrance Sunday.
But maybe that’s the Liverpudlian in me. They’re sentimental like that, are Scousers.
But it’s not all sad. My grandpa died achieving one of his aims in life. He became the oldest person to achieve an Open University degree aged 83 in the year he graduated.He also had three grandsons who have had seven grandchildren.Sapper Molyneaux’s great grandson – my son Joe Slee – bought a poppy for the first time this year.
He trooped into school with his 20p and came back with it on his jumper.
This is a good thing.
When he is older he may learn more about how war affected his family years before he was born.
So why is this story on a blog about digital?
Because the power of the connections that the internet makes cannot be over estimated.
It’s good to remind yourself of that – and other things.
2014 EDIT: My son is now 10 and for a school project we’re looking at Sapper Molyneux as being someone who died in the First World War. We’re researching him, his background and what life would have been life in Liverpool for him. We’ve already made some amazing discoveries and I’ll blog them later this year.